UK TV SF 1996–2006

2006+ Justin B Rye
(now with vigintennial update)

A recurring theme in my web‐feedback mailbox is that people keep asking me what I think of some TV show or other.  My opinions aren't really any more significant than the next random audience‐member's, but the result of these enquiries is that I've developed a repertoire of publishable summaries of the things I find myself yelling at the gogglebox.  Rather than dole them out on request it seems more efficient to collect them here alongside my Trek Rant and Fandom Mince pages.

So here is a decade's worth of jeers and (occasionally) cheers from the cheap seats – reviews in something vaguely approximating chronological order of all the science fiction shows I've seen on the television here at the flat known as Emmental since I moved in ten years ago.  Mind you, we only get the local free‐to‐air channels, and I'm ignoring things that reached our screen via any other medium; if I started including things like my flatmates' anime DVDs then I might as well count video games too.  I'm also leaving out repeats (such as the 1999 re‐run of Space 1999), children's programmes, movies, fantasy serials, and, oh, probably all kinds of things.

Red Dwarf
This had been a low‐budget SF sitcom in the eighties; the creeping increase in production values brought better special effects, but gradually diluted its bleak black‐comedy atmosphere.  By 1996 I was beginning to feel that (as with so many other BBC comedies) it had worked best on the radio, back in 1983 when it was a sketch on Son of Cliché
The (New) Outer Limits
One I missed, or at any rate, didn't see.
Star Trek: The Next Generation
I hadn't realised until I looked it up that it took them so long to finish screening this – I wasn't paying attention at the time.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
As I've explained before, the reason I gave up on this once Babylon 5 came along is self‐evident from their respective title sequences: both eponymous space stations were radially symmetrical, but one of the two was designed by somebody who understood why.
Babylon 5
I think I've covered this.  It was followed just as I'd always pessimistically assumed by inferior spin‐offs (to judge by what I've seen while visiting friends with fancy cable/satellite setups).  Meanwhile, even Channel 4's repeats of Babylon 5 itself vanished into the middle of the night and petered out.
Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman
Nearly forgot this one – somehow I always assume it came out in the eighties.  Alas, Stuporman is pretty dull at the best of times, and this version ensured my indifference by concentrating on his office romance with Unobservant‐Woman.
The X‑Files
This was the show that made me aware of the phenomenon of the narrative skyhook.  Mysteries don't justify continued viewing unless you have some reason to trust the writers to attach their narrative hooks to planned‐out plotlines, ultimately leading to some plausible, satisfying resolution…  Viewers of The X‑Files were instead left to dangle forever from the same old questions that had been loose ends since season one.
(Any X‑philiacs who enjoy this sort of abuse should try my ‐X Files page.)
Space: Above and Beyond
Marines in space.  If they'd waited for Starship Troopers to come out they could have copied that; instead this was Tour of Duty with the word “gook” search‐and‐replaced into “chig” (oh, and Private Kowalski was a replicant or something).
Crime Traveller
My apologies for reminding people of this, but I have to include it in the list, since although capriflatory it was also:
  • a new serial, first broadcast in the nineties
  • explicitly classified as science fiction for grown‐ups
  • commissioned by a UK “terrestrial” television channel
…which makes it almost unique.  Yes, it limped along for a total of eight episodes before they put it out of its misery, but what else was there matching those three criteria?
That's a rhetorical question.  The answer is:
Invasion: Earth
The second and last UK TV SF series of the nineties – six surprisingly glossy slices of BBC ham.  My theory is that it was written accidentally by somebody who had never heard of science fiction and therefore hadn't understood the corporate memos forbidding it.  Hence also the plot.
The decade also brought us a handful of fantasies, horrors, and “high‐tech thrillers” that might pass for SF if you squint (Neverwhere, Ultraviolet, Bugs).  But when you compare the profusion of serials churned out in the seventies and eighties it's clear what a drought the nineties were.  Blake's 7, The Day of the Triffids, Doctor Who, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Kinvig, The Nightmare Man, Sapphire and Steel… and those are the overtly science‐fictional home‐grown productions first broadcast during 1981 alone!
Maybe the original movie was a borderline case, but the series was undisguised supernatural fantasy, and therefore not something I have to deal with here.
Dark Skies
This was a sort of SF version of The X‑Files, and a classic example of intelligent storytelling inevitably being suppressed by the Conspiracy.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
The demon‐slapping was all very well, if not particularly the kind of thing I'm interested in, but a Californian high‐school setting?  That's just too monstrously alien for me to identify with.  It can't have helped that I missed the first seasons of this thanks to a year of working late… but then again, that didn't stop me latching on to Farscape.
Hang on, why am I covering Buffy and not, for instance, Angel or Xena or Hercules?  I'll compromise by including:
D for Andromeda.  Must try harder.
The nearest thing yet to a successor to Babylon 5.  Although this show never took itself entirely seriously, or thought through the nature of its fictional universe in any particular detail, it performed casual gymnastics with the conventions of space opera television serials.  Unfortunately, in the process it strayed too close to the territory of “well written speculative fiction”, which obviously couldn't be tolerated on the SCI‐FI Channel.
Stargate SG‒1
This show has been consistently watchable, but I've never quite forgiven it for taking the one action movie ever to feature a linguist hero and effectively writing out that aspect of the character.
An improv cosmology like this inevitably suffers from inflation: every season they encounter some new, more powerful bunch of aliens that somehow nobody thought to mention to them before.  I only wish they wouldn't combine it with “will the existence of extra‐terrestrial life be revealed to the general public?” cliffhangers, because once a show starts doing that, you know it'll never happen.  Indeed, they'll never acknowledge the profound effects friendly contact with technologically advanced aliens would have even if it was kept secret; think about what the NSA would do with a mere hundred‐year lead in crypto techniques.
A strange sort of “Carry on Destroying the Universe” (Farscape minus the cape).  It had some obvious flaws, but they were all quite clearly the result of intentional policy decisions.
The original Channel 5 screening of this show in 1997 doesn't qualify as having reached me – our TV aerial was picking up about three and a half stations in those days.  However, our reception improved as Lexx went downhill.
Star Trek: Voyager
This was Paramount scraping the bottom of the barrel, refusing to admit they had finally run out of Star Trek Universe.
Star Trek: Enterprise
Paramount grimly carrying on by scraping the lid.  I'm told it's lamentable stuff, but I'm in no position to judge for myself because I've never been able to get past the impenetrable energy barrier of the title music.
The miniseries.  No, “Osama Bin Ladin Conquers the Galaxy” never made it onto British screens, and odds are it never will.
Roswell High
Also known as plain Roswell.  Yet another high‐school fantasy, this time set in the New Mexican desert (a metaphor for the intellectual desert of the teen soap genre).
Invader Zim
For once I can understand why this might have been cancelled, if not quite what Nickelodeon were thinking when they commissioned it – a cartoon series by Jhonen “I Feel Sick” Vasquez was always going to be a bit warped.  Yet that somehow didn't stop it getting picked up for broadcast at 15:30 on Children's ITV… so perhaps in this case the standard prejudice that SF is suitable only for kids worked in our favour.  Except for the fact that they then arbitrarily dropped it after five episodes, of course.
This is another one that never reached my telly (that's right, here in the Third World we don't get any of your favourite channels), but I find it hard to regret it terribly much, given that the whole concept of the space‐western strikes me as one of the most intrinsically tedious things you can do with either genre.  The secret of Star Trek's inadequacy was in the 1964 pitch as “Wagon Train to the stars”.  That is, it was never intended to be “science fiction, but on TV”; what it was aiming for was “cornball drama, but set in space”.
While The Simpsons is renowned for its absurdly chaotic plotting, its fantastical offshoot was obliged by the constraints of the genre to make more sense: each episode had a more or less logical and coherent storyline.  It would be nice to have some more of Futurama, but if not, then never mind – it isn't as if it was telling a story we desperately need to be told the end of.
Earth: Final Conflict
Another production from the putrefying bowels of Gene Roddenberry.  The first addition to this list to arrive via Freeview, in the sense that I could in principle use the set‐top box to watch ITV2, if I was that desperate.
Smallville: Superman, the Early Years
Oh, how novel, a high‐school fantasy.  As I've already said, he was quite uninteresting enough even after he moved out of Dullsville… which according to Siegel and Shuster's original account must have happened in the early 1930s.  Is it a bird?  Is it a plane?  No, it's a dirigible.  You know, a Depression‐era setting might make it worth watching – does “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” mean enforcing Prohibition, or working to undermine the rule of law?  And did the Kent Farm's topsoil follow Clark to Metropolis during the dust bowl years?
Doctor Who
I had always thought Doctor Who was better off resting in peace (especially after the TV movie), so this successful resurrection has been a very pleasant surprise.  The format is a poor fit, and it's odd to see BBC Wales produce something so relentlessly London‐centric, but it has been easily up to the standard of the stuff I watched from behind the sofa (yes, literally) as a ten‐year‐old.
Which isn't to say that those classic shows were high‐quality, exactly.  The plots were as wobbly as the sets, and the writers took full advantage of the TARDIS's continuity bypass circuits.  The revived version by comparison almost looks as if it has an effects budget (that can't really be possible, can it?) and has once or twice made even the Daleks look like a plausible threat.
Stargate Atlantis
Not as good as the original, but better than Stargate New York.  Or so I imagine.
It would be nice to be able to believe that this show will finally teach people not to fall for narrative skyhooks.  Ah, ABC audiences with critical faculties – now there's a pointless fantasy.
Well, the title pretends it's a work of crushingly derivative sci‐fi, but as far as I can tell from what I've seen, the idea is just that Hurricane Katrina was caused by illegal aliens.
Life on Mars
Another iteration of the detective‐fantasy genre that Auntie Beeb seems so much more comfortable with than straight SF (cf. Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), Sea of Souls, etc.); this time it was one third time‐travel psychodrama, one third police procedural, one third I Love the '70s.  It got positive reviews, but I missed it.
The 4400
This series starts with a big mystery.  I've ignored it as a blatant rip‐off of a Spielberg cheesefest, but I'm told the narrative hook turns out to be firmly attached to a plotline leading in an unexpected direction.  The bad news is that the direction is downhill all the way.
Battlestar Galactica
A frustrating series, in that I just plain can't watch it – the camerawork is unendurable.  Save up and buy yourselves a tripod!  Still, at least I don't have to worry that I might be missing something.  If they had ever intended to take it anywhere good, they wouldn't have started from there.
[PS: told you so.  The other big clue I noticed on first tuning in to an episode of BSG was that I didn't have time to finish speaking the words “English accent?  What's the betting he'll turn out to be a traitor?” before the character turned out to be a traitor.]
The forthcoming Doctor Who spin‐off for anagram fans.  It hasn't come out yet, so I've still got time to devise pages titled CORD‐HOWTO and HOTROD‐COW.

2016 ADDENDUM: since I wrote this, the supply of watchable TV SF has only got shorter; and just as scenes of aliens and robots interacting in a realistic freefall environment finally became technically feasible, that entire subgenre seems to have somehow vanished from the airwaves.

Twenty years ago when I first moved into this flat, at the height of the great UK TV SF drought, the BBC may have been giving us nothing but hot and cold running Star Trek repeats, but at least there was Babylon 5 over on Channel 4, and that was about as close to a decent SF serial as visual media has ever got.  Ten years later in 2006 I still would have had a selection of American sci‐fi to choose from, ranging from dire to mediocre, if only I'd had access to those satellite channels.  But now while the Beeb has gone back to the series that was already an institution by 1966, in the USA the whole genre has suddenly been replaced by necrophile fantasies and comic‐book superhero yarns.  I did hear rumours of a single tolerable space opera coming out last year… except that Dark Matter was a Canadian production, and one I'm unlikely ever to see.

But never mind – next year they're planning to start the cycle all over again with a whole new wave of Star Trek.  By this point it's not barrel‐scraping so much as televisual fracking.